The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola

“Of supreme importance, more important than the facts he had already given, was the exploitation of Woman. Everything else led up to it, the ceaseless renewal of capital, the system of piling up goods, the low prices that attracted people, the marked prices that reassured them. It was Woman the shops were competing for so fiercely, it was Woman they were continually snaring with their bargains, after dazing her with their displays. They had awoken new desires in her weak flesh; they were an immense temptation to which she inevitably yielded, succumbing in the first place to purchases for the house, the seduced by coquetry, finally consumed by desire. By increasing sales tenfold, by making luxury democratic, shops were becoming a terrible agency for spending, ravaging household, working hand in hand with the latest extravagances in fashion, growing ever more expensive. And if, in the shops, Woman was queen, adulated and humoured in her weaknesses, surrounded by attentions, she reigned there as an amorous queen whose subjects trade on her, and who pays for every whim with a drop of her own blood.”

The Ladies’ Paradise
is volume 11 in Zola’s spectacular Rougon-Macquart series, and this volume serves as a sequel to the preceding novel, Pot-Luck. If you are not familiar with the Rougon-Macquart series, then you would naturally assume that volume 11 follows after volume 10. But in the Rougon-Macquart series, subsequent volumes do not usually pick up the tale where the last book left off. For this reason, some people recommend reading the series out of the order in which they were written, and say, for example read L’Assommoir (v.7) and then read v. 9, Nana (the protagonist in L’Assommoir is Gervaise, Nana’s mother). I have no argument against shuffling up the books from the order in which they were written, but I want to stick to Zola’s creative order.

Pot-Luck introduces Octave Mouret–the son of Marthe (Rougon) and Francois Mouret. Their story erupts in The Conquest of Plassans (v. 4). Francois and Marthe were first cousins and produced three children: Octave, Serge and Desiree. Serge becomes a priest, Desiree has a stunted development, and Octave is the ‘normal’ one of the bunch. The seeds of madness seen in The Fortunes of the Rougons (v 1) in Adelaide Forque now reemerge in her granddaughter, Marthe.

Pot-Luck is the tale of Octave’s arrival and early life in Paris as a young, ambitious man. This was, I think, the most enjoyable novel so far. Note that I didn’t say the ‘best’….

The Ladies’ Paradise, the title of volume 11, is also the name of Mouret’s huge department store. At the end of Pot-Luck, he married the shop’s owner, the widow Madame Hedouin, and now when the book begins, he’s a young widower. Over the years, he’s expanded his shop beyond anything Paris has ever seen before. Mouret is a remarkable salesman, and as a man who loves women, he understands exactly how to lure his female customers into the shop to spend money they don’t have. While his shop is a wonder to behold, Mouret is hated by his neighbours who are slowly being put out of business. The Ladies’ Paradise began as a drapery shop, but over the years it’s expanded to include dozens of different departments, and this leaves his neighbours on the verge of bankruptcy as they see their businesses dry up and their former customers flock to the colorful sales and displays in the windows of  The Ladies’ Paradise.

When the book begins, Denise Baudu and her two younger brothers arrive from the country to try their fortunes in Paris. With their parents dead, Denise, assumes the role of mother and makes the decision to move to Paris and their uncle’s shop. Unfortunately, Uncle Baudu’s dingy little shop is in decline–as are all the shops in the neighbourhood, and Baudu, a bitter, angry man cannot offer Denise a job. She finds a job at The Ladies’ Paradise and begins a very difficult employment there.

The novel follows the expansion of The Ladies’ Paradise as it gradually consumes all the other smaller businesses on the block. While Mouret doesn’t necessarily seek out the destruction of the other businesses, that’s exactly what happens as the huge department store, with thousands of employees gradually destroys all the other businesses in the area. Mouret’s marketing genius spurs the shop forward, and at several points in the novel, he’s almost delirious when learning how many hundreds of thousands of francs the shop took in on a single day.

Mouret isn’t seen as an intentionally bad person, but driven by a naked profit motive, he fires employees on the merest whim and when business is slack, he has the reputation of walking through the shop and mowing down employees with lay-off announcements. A fair number of the employees live in the stark, freezing barracks above the shop and they are served terrible food–two more ways in which management cuts costs.

In spite of Mouret’s unpredictable behavior, the employees consider themselves lucky to work at The Ladies’ Paradise, and this is mainly thanks to Mouret’s ingenious and unique development of a system of commissions which allows sales assistants to increase their salaries considerably:

“Having noticed that the larger the commission an assistant received, the faster obsolete goods and junk were snapped up, he had based a new sales method on this observation. In future he was going to give his salesmen an interest in the sale of all goods; he would give them a percentage on the smallest bit of material, the smallest article they sold: a system which had caused a revolution in the drapery trade by creating among the assistants a struggle for survival from which the employers reaped the benefit. This struggle, moreover, had become his favourite method, a principle of organization he constantly applied. He unleashed passions, brought different forces into conflict, let the strong devour the weak, and grew fat on this battle of interests.”

Unfortunately, while Mouret’s business flourishes due in part to the aggression of his sale assistants, some employees flounder in the cutthroat atmosphere. The novel is incredibly good at depicting the petty rivalries between employees–how one employee, for example, will covet the position of another and then slowly destroy that employee in the eyes of Mouret.

The Ladies’ Paradise is at its best depicting Mouret’s insatiable ambition, and the drawing room observations of the casual observers who wonder when the female sex will be avenged against Mouret’s heartless exploitation of the addicted female shoppers who flock to his shop. Other men, who are subject to their wives’ out-of-control spending habits warn Mouret:

“You can take everything you can from women, exploit them as you would a coal mine, but afterwards they’ll exploit you and make you cough it up! Take care, for they’ll extract more blood and money from you than you’ll have sucked from them.”

The Ladies’ Paradise presents the mature Mouret–the man whose attitudes towards women were just in the development stage in Pot-Luck. His objectification of women continues and his early observations of the female sex have morphed into an uncanny understanding of the psyche of the female customers who flock to his shop:

“He was building a temple to Woman, making a legion of shop assistants burn incense before her, creating the rites of a new cult; he thought only of her, ceaselessly trying to imagine even greater enticements; and, behind her back, when he had emptied her purse and wrecked her nerves, he was full of the secret scorn of a man to whom a mistress had just been stupid enough to yield.”

One of the novel’s very best scenes involves a sale at The Ladies’ Paradise and the novel follows the aimless forays and the deranged squandering that occurs amongst the women who can’t say no to a bargain.

Denise is a problematic heroine, and with her, I think the novel hits its weakest point. Denise’s steely moral determination is admirable, but she fails to make much of a stand on so many other issues–the destruction of her uncle’s business for example, and the crushing of friends and fellow employees. She absorbs these travesties which fail to make more than a ripple on her moral observations, and consequently, in many instances, she lacks the sort of emotional responses one would expect from a red-blooded female–and this was not, I think, Zola’s intention. But while most of the characters hate or envy Mouret, Denise observes his destructive side and tempers it. This implied sainthood renders Denise much less interesting as she, upon occasion, assumes a sort of tortured maytrdom (the scene with Madame Desforges, for example).

In today’s global economy with its continual cannibalization of small business by giant corporations, The Ladies’ Paradise is amazingly prescient. The novel’s somewhat insipid love story pales next to the obsession and compulsive passions of the ardent shoppers, and unfortunately although the novel’s final chapters are marred with excessive sentimentality. I’d put The Ladies’ Paradise in the good pile of the Rougon-Macquart series.

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3 Comments

Filed under Rougon-Macquart, Zola

3 responses to “The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola

  1. Hi! Thanks for informing about your site’s new address. Your blog IS my favorite book blog.

    The tip on the chronology of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series here is great. I just bought this very title (The Ladies’ Paradise) from the bargain section.

    • Guy Savage

      Thanks Karlo:
      If you read the Ladies’ Paradise, try to get a copy of Pot Luck too as the two novels do go together. That said, you can certainly read one without neccesarily reading the other (they both work as stand-alone novels).

      The Ladies’ Paradise amazed me in its freshness and relativity to today’s consumerist culture, and the scenes of the women rioting (well almost) in the sales were priceless. Zola captures the savvy marketing skills implemented to send customers into deranged forays through the department store. Great stuff!

      But on the whole, I much preferred Pot Luck. It was funny and it had a mean streak when it came to examining the morals of the bourgeoisie. Between Zola and Balzac, well…life is good.

      Thanks for your kind words about the blog.

  2. Pingback: The Ladies’ Paradise, by Emile Zola, translated by Brian Nelson | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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